"On August 9th, my house burned. 15 years of memories; 40 years of notebooks, drawings, thoughts, my life's work. It took about one hour for this house to come down — and in my mind, it took decades before it was even built. In the years that I lived here, I learned an awful lot. In the few weeks since it burned, I think I've learned even more. Today, we're going to share what's left of our home with you."
That's how Rachael started our Season 15 premiere, while showing viewers the devastating destruction of her house fire in the Adirondacks. And while it's not how we planned to kick off our new season, we couldn't be more grateful that Rach, John and their new puppy Bella Boo are all safe and sound. That's certainly something to celebrate.
For the first time, Rach is opening up about what happened on the day of the fire — if only to raise awareness for and stress the importance of fire safety. Rach is living proof that fires can happen to anyone, New York State Fire Investigator Greg Amyot says.
And it's no secret that Rachael is a proponent of fire safety and a passionate supporter of first responders and firefighters. In fact, as you may know, she's the first female board member of Denis Leary's Leary Firefighters Foundation. Now, it's even more personal.
"I've always been in awe of first responders and firefighters, and now, it's this personal," Rach says. "I've suited up in 50 pounds of gear, several times, and run into controlled fires and into fake situations that I then had to live through for real."
"Maybe the reason I was always drawn to this work and this group of people is that one day," she says, "my very life would depend on it."
Regarding the cause of the fire, "Our fire started in the chimney," Rach explains, despite their house being less than 15 years old and having their fireplace cleaned twice a year. "It was creosote that spit out the top and landed on the roof."
John had just returned from an unsuccessful golfing day with friends — his first socially distant outing with friends since the coronavirus pandemic had begun in March — so Rach thought she'd cheer him up by getting the fireplace going (it was a cool evening, she says) and making a pasta dinner.
"He didn't like his performance that day," Rach remembers, "and I thought, 'Well, I'll light a nice fire and make pasta. That makes him so happy.'"
As she and John were getting ready to eat (Rach's sister had already picked up pasta for herself and Rach's mom), they heard a man screaming in their backyard, in front of their sliding glass doors.
"A person was going through our backyard on an ATV and was kind enough to come down the hill and say, 'Your roof's on fire.' Literally screaming it in our backyard," she continues. "We went outside [and] sure enough, that was the case."
"The gentleman in our backyard said that he had called the fire department, of course, and first responders," Rach says.
"Immediately I ran upstairs to get medicines, photographs, notebooks — precious things. I heard the fire in the walls," she recalls. "It was blood-curdling and chilling from head to toe. I turn to leave and there was a first responder right in front of me, [saying], 'Get out, get out now. You have to go.'"
"I went to get the dog, and that was it," she says. "We left our house."
It was especially difficult for the firefighters to battle the fire since there are no fire hydrants near Rach's home — so big water trucks had to make their way to Rach's home to help.
"We don't have fire hydrants here," she says. "We're in the Adirondack Mountains."
It wasn't until the next morning that they truly understood the extent of the devastation.
"The next morning, Greg Amyot, the fire investigator, put me in boots up to my hips and in gloves up my arms and in a really good-quality face mask to walk through the still-burning house," Rach remembers. "My house caught fire again the next day. Trucks had to come again the next day."
"The night that the fire happened, we literally were just watching our house burn and burn and burn," John adds. "It wouldn't stop. You're just thinking, 'Oh God, what's going to be left?' Then we went up there the next day and you just don't know what's going to be left and what you're going to lose. So neither of us had any clothes at all other than what we were wearing. We walked in and there's devastation everywhere. We were like, 'Oh my God, there's no house left.' And then we went upstairs to our bedroom, figuring, 'Oh maybe there's some clothing.'"
Instead, all they found were piles of ash. And while it was originally believed that Rachael's kitchen was spared, she says that unfortunately was not the case.
"No, the outer walls are standing," she explains, "but they have to bulldoze the whole thing. I thought that my pizza oven had survived, [but then weeks later] something fell and broke the pizza oven, too."
Also gone, Rach says, are sentimental items, like her cooking notebooks, photo albums, paintings and pictures — like one from Tony Bennett that used to hang in her entryway.
Though they don't know for sure yet, Rach and John do believe that John's music studio can be salvaged, which is over their garage — a separate building from the house.
"John's studio is in a separate building and it was super duper insulated for sound, actually, and that's what saved it," Rach tells Denis Leary. And Denis had to know if John's beloved Flying V guitar was spared.
"I saved the [Flying] V," John tells Denis. "That's my guitar. That's it. My banjo sort of survived. It's a little smoky. But it still kind of plays."
As for the house itself, Rachael says it will be razed and rebuilt over the next year or so.
For now, she and John are staying in their guest house, where they will be filming season 15 of our show indefinitely. It's across the street from the house that burned, Rach says — so sadly, they are reminded of the fire every day when they look out the window. But she considers staying in the guest house to be a full-circle moment.
"I was so scared about letting people into my home. This was my safe place," Rach explains. "Then we started shooting from home, and on the first day, I cried and I was nervous and it frightened me. Then it became very comforting to me, to be able to work from home in March and April and May. And the thing I was scared of for years and years, keeping this private place became the most intimate I've ever been with our audience. And that became a comfort after Isaboo died."
"But then, to lose that home and have that be very public was also very painful," she continues. "So now, it's weird. It's a very circular thing. I designed our guest house to be a mini version of my home, so it would reflect me in as many ways [as] possible. Although this is the guest house and we're now the permanent guests, it feels strangely comforting to have the same sort of fireplace, the same construction, because I drew it."
About a month after the heartbreaking fire, Rach and John are grateful to be alive, but still endure waves of sadness, of course.
"The waves that come over us, we never see them coming," Rach explains. "Thankfully, we haven't had them on the same day. One of us has a breakdown at a time. For me, the first one was knowing that I lost most of my mom's handwriting, because my mom has very bad macular degeneration." (Rach's mom, Elsa, sweetly tried to write on Rach's birthday card later that month, on August 25th, so Rach would have another sample of her mom's handwriting.)
"I think what we've learned since the house burned is just waves of gratitude that we're alive and all the people that have reached out to us — people that we know and total strangers from all over the world," Rach explains. "I've gotten handwritten, real mail from people all over. So many folks understand and have been through this."
"The most important thing is life," John says. "We were lucky that we got out unharmed. We got our Bella out unharmed, and that's really the most important thing. We'll rebuild the house. It'll be back. We'll be okay. If one of us had been hurt or worse, that wouldn't have been okay."
"Another thing we've learned is that we can be a great example for people, that you must take all of this very seriously," Rach stresses. "You need to keep your fireplaces [cleaned]. You need to keep on top of that."
We love you, Rach & John! ❤️